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Friday, September 29, 2017

Sarah Mondale talks Backpack Full of Cash | Westword

Sarah Mondale talks Backpack Full of Cash | Westword:

Documentary Backpack Full of Cash Explores School Choice

Sarah Mondale.
Sarah Mondale.Courtesy of Stone Lantern Films

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New York-based filmmaker Sarah Mondale is no stranger to education. As a teacher, she's spent years seeing firsthand what makes public schools in the United States tick. And as a filmmaker, she's devoted much of her career to two documentaries exploring America's public schools. The latest, Backpack Full of Cashwhich premiered late last year, takes viewers inside public school systems on the East Coast to examine how the pivot toward "school choice" initiatives like charter schools and voucher programs impact the education system as a whole. In advance of a film screening tonight, Wednesday, September 27, at 7 p.m. at the Sie FilmCenter, Westword spoke with Mondale about the project's motivations and lessons.
Westword: Your family history is intertwined with public education. How does that inspire your work?
Sarah Mondale: My father was an American Studies professor. I come from a family of teachers. My mother taught English as a Second Language to adult students in the D.C. public schools, my grandmother taught in a one-room schoolhouse in Minnesota, I believe, and I was a teacher myself. And I had grown up with my father, who was from rural Minnesota originally, telling us kids that public schools were a pillar of American democracy.
And you’ve filmed education documentaries before?
I worked on a series called School: The Story of American Public Educationthat aired on PBS in 2001, and it was about the history of the democratic promise of public schools. It was narrated by Meryl Streep.
What are you seeing in education that pushed you into this project?
I’ve been a filmmaker all of my adult life, but I went into teaching after the PBS series aired and taught for about seven years. And after it aired, I began hearing this narrative that the public school system is broken, American public schools are failing, they are way below schools in other countries, and we need to get rid of this system and try something else – which means turning the schools over to the private sector in the form of charter schools [which are public schools that are privately run], vouchers to religious schools and private schools, and cyber-charter schools.
So the film explores privatization of the school system. But to be fair, public education isn't a perfect system.
While public schools do face challenges, especially in areas where there are large numbers of poor kids who are being educated, by and large the system is successful. I’m not downplaying the challenges that we face – we have to make public schools better – but the issue in this country is not that public schools are failing; they are unequal. We don’t want to throw away the school system that we have.
I saw this film called Waiting for Superman, which I felt to be kind of a propaganda piece about how charter schools have been a positive force in the lives of some children. And that’s true, I’m not denying that, but I felt what I wanted to look at was really, what is the impact of these programs on the kids in the public schools? We wanted to flip the perspective, and that was the goal of the film.
What is the "backpack full of cash?"
The idea of [charter-school advocates] is individual market-based choice – that you should be able to take money from the government and go shop for a school. Schools are not a consumer good like restaurants or supermarkets; they’re civic institutions. Once you reduce schooling to a mere “backpack full of cash,” this is draining and undermining public schools.
In the film, you explore change inSarah Mondale talks Backpack Full of Cash | Westword:
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